"Vishwamitri " a River and its Reign (2017)
The Context:The Vishwamitri river originates from the western and southern slopes of Pavagadh hills. It flows westward through the city of Vadodara, further downstream it is linked with two other tributaries Dhadhar and Jambuva and finally culminates in the Gulf of Kambhat.
"The highly meandering sinuous river has a unique ecosystem bearing a plethora of beautiful ravines right from its beginning till its end. Of paramount importance in its ecology is the presence of the highly protected species, the Indian crocodile. These crocodiles have been inhabiting and breeding in an 18 km stretch of the Vishwamitri River for thousands of years."1
Over the years of its course within the city of Vadodara, the river has been subject to severe abuse as a consequence of rapid urbanization and neglect towards water systems within the city and its outskirts. It has also suffered relentless ecological damage by way of sewage, contaminated storm water outfalls, industrial effluents drained in the river and several other point and non point sources of pollution.
Urban governance decisions have time and again sanctioned dumping within and encroachment of the river floodplains, resulting in the disappearance of several wetlands and water systems associated with the river. As a result of the destruction of several of these natural sponges and the reduction in the river flood carrying capacity the city has become prone to flooding problems.
Since 1994, there have been eight years when the river water has reached flood alert level. Flood waters inundating low lying parts of city have resulted not only in despair for people living in these areas but also created situations of human animal conflicts as they endanger the habitats for crocodiles within the river as well.
There have been several efforts and subsequent proposals in the past, each aiming to address some of the various issues associated with the river. In an effort to transform Vishwamitri into a major asset that can improve the quality and life of the city, Vadodara Mahanagar Seva Sadan has recently proposed the Vishwamitri Riverfront Development Project. The vision of the project is to create a safer, cleaner, sustainable, diverse and integrated riverfront for Vadodara.The Problem:Though aptly worded and visually engaging, a closer look at the feasibility report makes it abundantly clear that the project is merely a highly accessible river promenade development, on the lines of the highly publicized and widely promoted Sabarmati Riverfront Development in Ahmedabad.
The project deals with the river in a piece meal manner neglecting the lager watershed and hydrological network that it is a part of. It undermines the river ecosystem and values associated with it. It has issues of dealing with the communities that have lived along the river for generations. The project lacks environment impact and social impact assessments. The activities being carried out in the name of the project have the potential to lead to destruction of the river ecosystem function and habitat destruction for the crocodile species that the river is a home to.
"The environmental risk posed by the impugned project is further amplified by the fact that the project is being constructed on the wetlands and terrace floodplains of the river, which could result in irreversible damage of the wetlands which are sought to be protected under the law."2
The proposal to engineer the banks and retain water throughout the year will damage the entire ecological function of a non perennial seasonally changing river converting it into an impounded tank with little ecological value. The conversion of the riparian edges into concrete walls will result in the destruction of important ecological niches.
The activity in name of the project has already displaced more than 5000 people and more are expected to be displaced soon. With little regard to rehabilitation of these communities during the project commencement, the project comes across as inclusive to few.
With administrative boundaries being the criteria to define the project influence zone, there seems to be a lack of consideration of ecological boundaries in the design.
The need:These and several other issues reiterate the fact that there is a clear need to reconceptualise the proposal.
Objectives:To propose an alternative design (or river development criteria and measures) that implements the importance of restoring, maintaining and managing whole ecosystems and is based on:
- collaboration instead of a top down decision making approach
- boundaries that are ecologically derived and designed and not administratively imposed
- objectives that maintain ecosystem integrity, increase ecosystem health, restore natural biodiversity, sustain natural processes and integrate the cultural framework and not just a goal that makes the river an amenity to be exploited by humans.
Significance:In context of a socially economically diverse and dynamic democracy, how can an important ecological asset of a small meandering river, habitat of crocodiles, be studied through the theories and principles of:
1) Conservation ecology2) Environmental policy and planning3) Environmental Justice4) Landscape Architecture
The project would be an exemplary study for smaller river systems within rapidly developing cities that don't gain much attention and aren't adequately funded. It would be a new framework for developing river interventions.
Research Methodologies:O A RObserve: Field study of site and case studies of similar riversAsk: Interaction with experts, stakeholders, decision makersRead: Secondary data of existing reports, Literature reviews, Preference studies, Survey tools, etc.
Sources:1, 2 - Letter to government officials from VRAT team
Alexandra de Sosa Kinzer, MS/MLA Conservation Ecology/Landscape Architecture
Xinming Liu, MLA Landscape Architecture
Dhara Mittal, MLA Landscape Architecture
Rubin Sagar, MS Conservation Ecology
Krithika Sampath, MS Conservation Ecology
Chase Stone, MS Environmental Policy and Planning
Yundi Yang, MS Conservation Ecology